Pirates versus Weapons Dealers: Looking for the Good Guys off the Somali Coast

By Clemens Höges, Uwe Klußmann and Horand Knaup

The pirates that captured the freighter Faina didn't know the ship was full of tanks. They also were unaware that by hijacking the vessel, they had ruined an international weapons deal that may have been illegally sending arms to Sudan.

Professionals have their standards, and they stick to their routines, regardless of their nationality or line of business. "As soon as we have entered a ship," says Sugule Ali, a Somali pirate, "we normally do what we call inspection: we search everything."

When they boarded the Faina, Ali and his men did not have to search long before finding the freighter's valuable cargo. A T-72 combat tank, measuring a full 9.5 meters (31 feet) long, from its stern to the muzzle of its cannon, a 41-ton steel colossus, is hard to miss. There were 33 of the tanks on the two decks of the Faina, enough military equipment from Ukraine to fill a medium-sized military parade.

The presence of the tanks made one thing abundantly clear to Ali and his men: By hijacking the ship, they would either be very rich very soon -- or dead. The Faina was not one of the usual targets -- such as tankers, freighters and yachts -- that Somali pirates have been hijacking in large numbers in recent months. Tanks are either the property of governments, or of men with a lot of dirty money and few scruples.

But then, human life means just as little to Ali and his fellow pirates -- even their own. "Everyone dies only once," says Ali. Speaking via a satellite telephone, Ali told SPIEGEL that, before the attack, he had "no information that a ship loaded with weapons was passing through our waters." When he discovered what the ship's cargo was, he was not overly perturbed. "There is no fear" within his gang of roughly 50 men, the pirate claims.

Diplomatic Entanglements

Once they gained control of the freighter, the pirates turned it around and set course for Hobyo, one of several notorious pirate haunts on Somalia's lawless Indian Ocean coast. The first pursuer, the USS Howard, an American destroyer under the command of Captain Curtis Goodnight, followed a short time later.

By Friday evening of last week, the Faina was anchored off Hobyo and was surrounded by warships and the standoff continues this week. Meanwhile, cabinet ministers, military officials and intelligent agents around the globe have spent days pondering the vessel's unusual cargo, diplomatic entanglements and military options. Also on the list of concerns is the crew of 21 people on board the Faina.

Suspected location of main pirate ships Areas with pirate camps Yemen Ethiopia Kenya Current location of the Ukrainian freighter "Faina" Sudan Africa Indian Ocean Gulf of Aden Eyl Mogadishu Obbia Haradera Mombasa
DER SPIEGEL

Suspected location of main pirate ships Areas with pirate camps Yemen Ethiopia Kenya Current location of the Ukrainian freighter "Faina" Sudan Africa Indian Ocean Gulf of Aden Eyl Mogadishu Obbia Haradera Mombasa

Ali's small-time gangsters, in their sneakers, have climbed up onto a world stage normally reserved for bigger players. In the ensuing drama, the boundaries between the good guys and the villains have become difficult to discern, primarily because there may not in fact be any good guys. In this production, the pirates are the equivalent of pickpockets who had the bad luck of stealing a mafia godfather's briefcase.

In reality, the incident is about much more than a hijacking and Ali's demand for $20 million (€13.8 million) in ransom money. It is also about anarchy in a failed state like Somalia, and about the interests of the United States, Russia and the European Union, as it gradually takes on a new role on the world stage.

Most of all, it is about Africa's longest-lasting civil war, the war in Sudan, which is relatively quiet at the moment but could soon erupt into as bloody a conflict as it was before. And it is about the international dealings of arms traders and possibly governments that are involved.

The Pirates Spoiled the Deal

Officially, the Ukrainian T-72 tanks were designated for Kenya. But now there is mounting evidence that the tanks on board the Faina were en route to Sudan via Kenya. If this is true, it would be embarrassing for Ukraine and devastating for Kenya, whose president likes to portray himself as a peacemaker. At any rate, it looks as though pirate Ali and his men spoiled the deal.

The pirates caught sight of the freighter on Thursday, Sep. 25, at about 4 p.m. It was unarmed, had no escort and was flying the flag of the Caribbean nation of Belize.

Fleeing was not an option for the Ukrainian captain, Vladmir Kolobkov, when he saw the pirates coming. At full steam ahead, the ship's Sulzer diesel engine could barely push the Faina's 14,000 tons through the water at 15 knots -- a bicycle's pace. The pirates' open, lightweight attack boats were easily twice as fast.

Kolobkov also knew that he could not ram and sink the pirates' boats. Professionals bring along the right tools, and for Somali pirates that means Kalashnikovs and RPG-7 bazookas, which are designed to shoot holes into steel walls. Faced with such odds, an experienced captain knows not to play the hero.

Using cables and grappling hooks, the pirates hoisted themselves on board. The crew -- 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and one Latvian -- surrendered, but not before sending out a distress signal, which apparently put the USS Howard on the hijacked ship's trail.

There was, though, someone else who quickly realized that a hostage crisis unprecedented in the region was taking shape off the coast: Andrew Mwangura. A former seaman, Mwangura sees himself as a social worker of sorts, as someone who helps seamen from around the world by providing information, contacting relatives and finding doctors. "Seamen have no lobby," he says. But in East Africa they have Mwangura and his "Seafarer's Assistance Programme," headquartered in Mombasa, Kenya.

Ransom for Ships and Crews

In the last two-and-a-half years, the offices of his program have turned into a news center. Since 2006, more and more people have been kidnapped, a growing number of ships have been attacked and higher ransoms have been demanded -- and paid -- on the Horn of Africa. This year, Somali pirates have attacked more than 60 ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. At least 10 hijacked freighters and tankers are at anchor off the coast of Somalia. The pirates are holding their crews, roughly 260 seamen, hostage on board the vessels until their ransom demands are met.

In this year alone, shipping companies have had to pay $30 million (€20.7 million) in ransom for ships and crews, and insurance premiums have grown tenfold in some cases. The pirate gangs are already making serious inroads into the flow of global trade at their bottleneck near the entrance to the Red Sea. More than 16,000 ships pass through the area each year. The problem is so severe that some shipping companies are already considering ordering their captains to take the long route around Africa.

Hardly anyone knows more about the pirates than Mwangura, who maintains a large network of confidantes and informants. And because no one else but Mwangura has such good connections, even in anarchic Somalia and within the pirates' clans, many are asking for his help, including embassies, shipping companies from around the world, family members of hostages, and insurance companies from the financial centers of the West.

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